A Meaning-Making Machine

by Emma Christine Hall & Kevin Barrett Kane


As I write this post, I’m seated next to Emma driving down a Missouri highway to Tulsa, Oklahoma. We are on our way from our soon-to-be new home in Kansas City to drop Emma off for her most recent professional endeavor.

Those of you who know us personally might be aware of the duality of Emma’s position at our company. She functions as the Managing Director at The Frontispiece, so any client inquiries that come through are fielded by her. But during the day, she works as a teacher. For the past two years, Emma has served as a Math Fellow in Denver Public Schools in one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Colorado. And in Tulsa this week, she will join a group of talented young teachers-to-be at the Teach for America Summer Institute.

When I first met Emma, I pretended to know a “thing or two” about education. While in university, I served as a member of the Writing Outreach Program with Julie Carr at the helm, wherein Creative Writing MFA and undergraduate students spent time in K-12 classrooms teaching exercises of creativity and imagination via the written word. I thought I had opinions about the “system,” about my student loans, and about how the next generation might find their way through the strange labyrinth of the modern world.

In reality, I knew very little.

It took me a while of getting to know Emma before I realized this, and the realization I had wasn’t only about teaching. I was a person who prided myself in my ability to communicate. Specifically, I imagined that I could speak intelligently about most any subject if given the terminology to do so. By quickly acquiring the vocabulary of a process, event, or belief, I thought myself capable of speaking in and around it effectively. I quickly learned, however, that these developed styles of broaching subject matter did not convince Emma in ways that it may have with certain professors in school. Simply owning a vocabulary was not enough to converse. Emma was skeptical and critical of many of my flawed arguments and “solutions” and, as one of the most intelligent and articulate persons I have ever met, was very effective at deflecting my idealist, insensitive, and often binaristic statements.

The more times this happened, it seemed, the more my confidence waned, and the more I fell in love. I was beginning to recognize how my identity and racial privilege afforded me a flawed perception of communication, and that I had been employing my privilege shamelessly and without repercussion almost daily for my entire adult life. I started speaking less, and trying to listen more, but most importantly, I asked a lot of questions. Emma asked me questions as well. If we didn’t have the answer, we looked it up. I quickly found the areas in which my true intelligences lay, but more importantly, from these questions more meaningful and more memorable conversations were started.

Just this morning, a question was posed that was seemingly unremarkable, but brought about a conversation in which Emma repeated a statement that has been branded into my mind ever since she said it:

“You are a meaning-making machine. And life is meaningless.”

Also a pie-making machine!

Also a pie-making machine!

My designer brain obsesses over solutions, and the entrepreneur in me insists that failure is always a healthy option. But, as I have recently come to recognize, imagining “solutions” is also an act of privilege that must be examined. For me, making meaning is very often about locating sources of tension or conflict and striving for a solution. I find a lot of inspiration and self-actualization in the act and effect of solution-finding—this is why I chose to become a graphic designer.

But the reality of solutions is that they’re human-made, therefore inherently flawed and coagulated by language. Designers like to refer to work as solutions, but very often design is not a solution. Rather, it is a reaction. Reactions are temporal and momentary. The best are remembered, but they will eventually disappear.  Solutions, on the other hand, are machines. They are put into place to serve a purpose, and they require design, maintenance, and operation. Most importantly, solutions are an investment of time, money, and people, but by their very nature are not likely going to succeed at addressing every facet of a problem. Here at The Frontispiece, we specifically employ the term “solutions” in our branding to reference our services because we believe in long-term relationships with clients rather than the drop and go approach.

So, what’s the point of this whole car-ride blog-rambling? We’ll let’s assume your not here for advice, and even if you were, it wouldn’t be very good of me to offer it. In the words of human Hunter S. Thompson, “If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.” Rather, I sit here in this overheated little Honda and think back on all I have learned from Emma over the past year. I’ve learned how to better communicate, to listen, to love, and to be less of an adult-like child and more of a child-like adult. I imagine meeting my year-ago self over coffee, and wonder what I would say. I think it is this:

“The most compassionately human tool that you have is your humility. Use it.”

If life truly is meaningless, at least there’s time still to learn and to laugh our way to happiness. And for us, happiness is the hustle. Happiness is waking up and feeling like there is change to be made, whether small or large, in the way we speak to one another, in the way we address the world around us, and in the way we design the architecture of our lives. I know that we will do this with an inquisitive mind and a quest for solutions, and that we will continue seeking self-regulation in regards to privilege, pretention, and didacticism. The question is whether you will join us on our never-ending search for beautiful meaninglessness? We hope that you will.